Tag Archives: Ramp Your Voice

Disabled People of Color Highlighted in #GetWokeADA26 Survey

The creators of Ramp Your Voice! and the Disability Visibility Project, Vilissa Thompson, LMSW and Alice Wong respectively, have collaborated to create #GetWokeADA26. The survey, created to celebrate the 26th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, highlighted the voices of disabled people of color to examine how the Americans with Disabilities Act has affected their lives.

“As disabled women of color, we believe the disability community needs to ‘get woke’ on race, racism, and intersectionality,” wrote Thompson. “The work of getting ‘woke’ can be hard, awkward, and uncomfortable, but this is something disabled people of color expect and deserve.”

Many who have participated have said how the Americans with Disabilities Act have helped them finish school, have better work experiences and a better quality of life overall. But other participants cited how the law negatively affects those with “invisible disabilities.”

The survey also highlighted other aspects of being a disabled person of color on the gender and sexual spectrums. Many of the overlapping issues facing disabled people of color are either ignored or not dealt with at the same time. To sum up their opinions, they felt that society wants them to either fit in one group or the other, and usually, the issues they face as people of color or as LGBTQ+ individuals aren’t discussed as much as they should because of an erroneous idea that discussing disability should be done with a naive colorblindness. In many ways, disabled people of color feel like they are being told “All Lives Matter” in their everyday lives.

There are also problems within certain demographics that exacerbate issues facing disabled people of color. One person wrote how their OCD, autism, and depression went undiagnosed because of a cultural attitude in black America to hide or ignore symptoms.

One way the angst over underrepresentation or lack of representation could be solved is if those in the media actually create characters and stories that focused on disabled people, especially disabled people of color, who are represented in the media even less than white disabled people. “Another major issue that the respondents frequently highlighted was the lack of diverse images of disability in the media,” wrote Wong. “One thing disability organizations can and should do is support the creation of media by disabled POC that reflects the full range of diversity in our community.”

“When you don’t see yourself in the media or in images produced by the disability community, you think you don’t count.  White privilege is never knowing what that type of racialized erasure feels like, she wrote. “Disabled POC who speak out about this have been criticized and harassed online.  Online communities and activism via social media such as #DisabilityTooWhite are creating spaces where these voices are heard and valued.”

Wong and Thompson provide these tips to readers who want to know how to better serve disabled people of color.

  • Listen and engage with disabled POC.
  • Don’t expect disabled POC to do the majority of the labor of educating you.
  • Acknowledge white privilege and other forms of privilege throughout your organization’s work/activities.
  • Recognize the pain that disabled POC experience as multiple marginalized people.
  • Do not co-opt, appropriate the civil rights movement or compare it with the disability right movement. Just. Don’t.
  • Build safe spaces for everyone to engage openly and honestly.
  • Do not represent our views without us.
  • Hire disabled POC as staff, consultants, and experts; and treat them as equals, not tokens.
  • Realize diversity means more than a few disabled POC in a room!
  • Examine your policies and practices for implicit bias.
  • Build coalitions with communities of color and other social justice movements that are already doing intersectional work.
  • Support the creation of diverse media by disabled POC.

You can read both parts of the report at Ramp Your Voice! and the Disability Visibility Project. You can also read Thompson and Wong‘s interviews with JUST ADD COLOR, as well as Thompson’s #RepresentYourStory article.

#RepresentYourStory: The Unicorn Effect: Finding Self-Love and Acceptance as a Disabled Black Woman

By Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

I am Black.

I am physically disabled.

I am a woman.

It has taken me almost 30 years to embrace all of my identities at the same time.

Growing up, I never felt fully included within any of the three groups.  Being in a wheelchair made me stand out in the Black community like a sore thumb – people were friendly, but never knew how to approach the “little disabled Black girl in the chair.”  In school, I was in mainstream classes, & was dubbed “the smart disabled girl.”  This meant that I was separated from the other disabled children in my schools because I wasn’t “like” them; I was treated as a super cripple – cute, sweet, well-mannered kid who was incredibly smart despite being in the chair.  And as a girl, the boys didn’t date me – they didn’t want a disabled girlfriend, but thought that my crushes on them were funny.

Within each identity, I had battling roles to overcome:  felt outcasted as black and disabled; to those able-bodied I was the “right” kind of disabled that allowed me to not be seen as “useless;” and I wasn’t deemed attractive or dateable by the boys I liked.  However, there were dynamic moments and connections that reshaped how I viewed these identities, & how I grew to love the woman I saw in the mirror.

The first was the fact that I was incredibly fortunate to have been raised by a Grandmother who acted as a buffer for me against the ignorance – my Grandmother loved me unconditionally, and I knew this with every fiber of my being at a young age.  She was my carer, my advocate, and I was (and still is) the apple of her eye.  The bond was further strengthened by the fact that I had part of her name, which is something she adamantly wanted that my mother obliged.  That connection, plus her love for me, showed me that I was loveable, special, and valued, even in a society that tried to say otherwise.  It was her example that taught me what being a Black woman was about, and as I grew into my own womanhood, I used her as a model for what I could become, but as a disabled version.

In addition to having my Grandmother’s unwavering love, I learned what I was good at:  excelling in my classes, and writing.  The praise I received as a honor roll student soothed the exclusion pain I felt in school – I was “good” at something someone my age was expected to be, and I liked the attention I received from the adults, and enjoyed watching my able-bodied peers get envious that the “girl in the chair” was better than them.  In a twisted sense, these strengths laid sturdier bricks onto the foundation for my self-esteem and confidence as I navigated an ableist, ignorant world.

Though those bricks solidified the foundation, they also made me feel like a unicorn:  there were not a lot of disabled people of color around me in my classes.  The attention I received for doing well in my classes was positive, but it also created pressure for me to be “perfect.”  I knew that I was representing two main groups of my identities, being disabled and black.  Because there were not many of us in these settings, I knew that I couldn’t “mess up” or misbehave as other students (plus I knew what would happen to me at home if I did… Grandmother did not play when it comes to acting up in school).  I have always felt a sense of weight from the identities I carried; I never thought of it as a burden, but having eyes on me and knowing the opinions of others about my existence was the burdensome I felt.

It was when I ventured off to college that I began to meet other disabled people who understood my plight, and who also carried the unicorn weight I held up.  Those friendships allowed me to see that my life mattered greatly, and so did my voice.  Though I enjoyed my friendships, I noticed one thing:  I had not befriended many disabled people of color, or women of color with disabilities like myself.  Not having individuals who understood the unique challenges of being of color and disabled left a gaping hole that needed to desperately be filled.

It was not until 2013 when I created my self-advocacy organization that I finally began connecting with disabled people of color, and finally, disabled women of color.  Being of color is a huge part of who I am, that exceptionally grew in definition when I undertook African American Studies (AAMS) in college to learn more about my history as a Black American.  It is only fitting that connecting with disabled Black women, and other minorities, would make me feel complete in this experience.  What I found from meeting and befriending these women was that we were all desiring to meet each other, and struggled to find women who looked like us in the disabled community, in our schools, and in our communities.  They shared similar issues with feeling accepted in the racial group they were members of, struggled with embracing their sexuality and femininity, and worried about finding a partner who would love them – basically all of the matters I had been concerned about all of my life.  Connecting with each other had a powerful effect on validating our struggles and achievements.  These are my disabled Sistas – no other friendships come close to what I experience when I reach out to them.  They “get” me, and have closed the hole that previously existed.  I finally felt accepted for who I was as an African American disabled woman because I saw other women who looked just like me – I no longer felt like a unicorn, or an outcast.

The triple jeopardy hand I have been dealt with in life has not been easy by any means, but quite frankly, I would not change it either.  I am proud of the reflection that stares back at me in the mirror; I am fearless, I am strong, and most importantly, I am perfectly imperfect.  The experiences I endured along the journey to embracing my three identities greatly shaped how I view and interact with the world around me – I would not hold the strong levels of compassion, understanding, and empathy I possess if I was not born the way I am.  My differences are my strengths, not weaknesses, and at almost 30, I understand that to be fervently true.  I am strong enough to live this life because it is who I am meant to be.

When I go out into the world, I hold my head up high because I have no reason to doubt my worth – I am fearlessly and unapologetically me.

About Vilissa Thompson

Vilissa Thompson is a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) from Winnsboro, SC. Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization focused on promoting self-advocacy and strengthening empowerment among people with disabilities. Being a Disability Rights Consultant, Writer, & Advocate affords Vilissa the opportunity to become a prominent leader and expert in addressing and educating the public and political figures about the plight of people with disabilities, especially women of color with disabilities. Being a disabled woman of color herself, sharing her life experiences, and tales from the women she has encountered during her advocacy work, has empowered her immensely because it validated the struggles and successes she endured in her young life.

Ways to connect with Vilissa:

Website:  http://rampyourvoice.com

Email:  Vilissa@rampyourvoice.com

Facebook:  /RampYourVoice

Twitter:  @VilissaThompson & @RampYourVoice

Do you want to participate in #RepresentYourStory? Share your story of self-acceptance at monique@colorwebmag.com, or fill out the #RepresentYourStory questionnaire! Read more about #RepresentYourStory here

 

Exclusive Interview: #DisabilityTooWhite creator Vilissa Thompson

The hashtag #DisabilityTooWhite went viral recently, and with good reason; even though coverage of issues facing the disabled might be out there, the coverage is too frequently focused solely on how disability issues affect white Americans, not all Americans. I was happy to interview the creator of #DisabilityTooWhite and founder of the site Ramp Your Voice!, Vilissa Thompson, LMSW. In our email interview, we discuss the origins of the hashtag, some of the problems with mainstream coverage of disabiilty issues, and what people should take away from the messages stated in the hashtag. If you want to read more about the lack of diversity in coverage about the issues facing the disabled, read Thompson’s article, “White Privilege & Inspiration Porn.” Like Thompson states in her article, I too had an epiphany while reading this and will work on internalizing all of the complexities surrounding “inspiration porn.”

 

What prompted the hashtag?

It was an article on xoJane that a friend and fellow advocate shared that showcased the standard image of disabled women: white disabled women.  Of course, we need more visibility of disabled women as a whole, but the “face” of this subgroup is typically white.  As a Black disabled woman, that frustrates me because I know how it feels to be invisible in the communities I hold membership to — disabled, Black, and female.  I, like so many Black disabled women and other women of color, are frankly tired of that erasure of who we are, especially when it is an issue that gets rarely discussed publicly in our community.  The hashtag was something that came to me instantly when I replied about my annoyance of the lack of diversity and inclusion, especially on platforms that specifically focus on women.

What problems have you seen when it comes to representation of POCs with disabilities?

There is this “excuse” that circulates within the community about not being able to “find” disabled people of color.  To me, that’s a poor excuse to utter, especially with how many disabled people of color advocates utilize social media and speak out on the issues that matters to them as folks who hold multiple memberships.  As I wrote in a recent article, that excuse can no longer be tolerated – you don’t find us because you aren’t looking hard enough TO find us.  We have been here since the start of the Disability Rights Movement, yet if you were to let the history books tell it, disabled people of color were not around.  This has been a continuous issue of erasure in our community, and it’s something many of us, including myself, make known and speak out on unapologetically. It’s 2016 — it is beyond time for disabled people of color to be visible in our community in every capacity; from organizations to articles published about the disability experience.

There’s been a lot of needless pushback against the #DisabilityTooWhite. What do you make of the backlash and what lesson do you want the hashtag’s detractors to take away from the hashtag instead?

From what I saw, many of those detractors were trolls — they just wanted to infiltrate and derail the conversation that was being held.  With those individuals, I personally ignore them, and continue to get my message across — they will not be a distraction to the bigger picture for me as an advocate.

The persons who really need to understand the hashtag are the disabled people, particularly disabled Whites, who felt that the hashtag was an personal attack on who they are as disabled people and/or was “unnecessary.”  One thing I noticed as an advocate of color: the disabled community is very uneducated on experiences that goes beyond disability; meaning that anything that discusses differences outside of disability meets great resistance (we see this on both an individual level and within disability-centered organizations).  That resistance perpetuates the silence and erasure of individuals who hold dual or multiple identities, which in this case, would be disabled people of color and disabled women of color.

Disabled people have to realize that though we are disabled, that doesn’t negate the privileges we have; admitting that we all have privileges isn’t shameful, but the way some of us react when it’s pointed out is problematic.  I am intimately aware of the privileges I hold, and I use them to help those access spaces that they cannot because they don’t have those same privileges as I do.  When disabled people of color vocalize that they endure plights that disabled Whites do not, it is not us creating an “us vs. them” realm; we are simply stating how the world works for us, and in many cases, works against us due to multiple memberships.  The pushback of trying to understand our stories shows a lack of respect for the diversity of the community, and shows disabled people of color that they cannot feel truly comfortable about how they are and the unique struggles they endure if those thoughts will be challenged by those of the majority (in this case, disabled Whites).

Being open-minded to the realities of others that live and look differently from you as a disabled person is the key takeaway – yes, we may have a disability, but the world interacts with us differently that goes beyond disability status.  Being willing to listen to disabled people of color is so important, and the detractors missed a prime opportunity to do just that.

There are those who have learned a lot from the hashtag and have interacted with you personally to thank you for creating it. What do you think of the hashtag’s positive effect?

The most positive effect of the hashtag was the fact that disabled people of color were able to freely share their truths.  We talk amongst each other or keep it to ourselves — we rarely have the opportunity to discuss these matters so publicly.  Being able to share your experiences, the good, bad, and painful, is an empowering moment, especially when you are able to connect with others who have endured similar circumstances.  This public sharing validates who you are and the life you live — as disabled people of color, we seek out that validation greatly because of the lack of attention to our lives in the community and the broader society.  Our community and society can no longer feign ignorance to who we are and how the world responses and treats us – that’s a powerful realization when these hashtags are created and gain mass attention.

Having the ability to connect with other disabled people of color on social media and build an incredible network and support group is another positive effect.  Personally, one of my favorite things about being a blogger and advocate is befriending and collaborating with disabled women of color.  The hashtag allowed me to bond closer with the women I already knew, and to meet disabled women of color who understand the world I, and we, live in.

How do you think the media could rectify how they cover disability issues, especially disability issues relating to people of color?

Diversity and inclusion are huge problems in the media, and it’s being resolved at a snail’s pace.  The media perpetuates the “default” face (i.e., white) for disability when they only share stories about White disabled people, as well as write inspiration porn-themed stories about disabled people of color.  Learning how to write about disability that isn’t disrespectful or plays on the “good feels” or pity emotions is so important, no matter the color of the individual being written about.  There are so many disabled people of color who are advocates, and are doing incredible work in their specific areas of interest and in their communities; the failure to highlight us is inexcusable.

With how connected we all are due to the internet and social media, we should not still have this problem with journalism that plays on disability stereotypes and inaccurate understanding about what disability actually is, along with only amplifying the voices and experiences of one subgroup in the community.  The media plays a huge role in how the society reacts, interacts, and understands disability — it’s long overdue for the media, in all forms, take this responsibility seriously and depict all of our experiences fairly and respectfully.

What is the ultimate goal you have for #DisabilityTooWhite?

I want the hashtag to shine a light on the issue of race and invisibility in our community and force the issue to be discussed openly and not in private, as it tends to occur.  I hope the disabled people of color who participated, and those who read the tweets shared, truly understand that their voices and experience matters, and to not allow anyone quiet them because they are uncomfortable with what they have to say.  One of my favorite quotes comes from Zora Neale Hurston:  “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”  I want every disabled person of color to speak up and speak out about the ableism, racism, discrimination, prejudices, sexism, homophobia, and every other injustice they endure in our community and to do so without worrying about hurting feelings or making others squirm in their seats because the truth is hard to hear.

What we did with the #DisabilityTooWhite hashtag was just that:  there were some who did not want to hear what we had to say, but there were many more who needed to hear it.  The latter group is I hope feel the lasting effects of the hashtag, and learn that they aren’t alone and there’s plenty of work left for us to do as advocates to change the status quo.♦